The To-Do List: You’re Doing It Wrong. Here are 5 Alternatives

the to do list


Editor’s Note: Make sure you don’t miss on this insightful and useful article.

I cannot tell you how many times I have scuttled a to-do list in a failed attempt to get more done.

The to-do list seems like such a necessary element of an efficient work day. Nearly everyone I know keeps a list of some sort, and those who don’t wish they did because it’s so hard to remember all that needs to be done. My heart’s in the right place, but still I constantly fail at maintaining a standard to-do list.

Am I doing something wrong? Maybe not.

It seems that to-do lists make sense in theory, but the actual application of to-do lists often leads to big breakdowns. There are a variety of reasons. We dawdle with the simple tasks and procrastinate on the hard ones. Our workday moves fluidly and renders our lists incomprehensible by day’s end. Our lists change the paradigm from motivation to nagging. When it comes time to get work done, to-do lists have their drawbacks.

Sometimes it feels like the list controls you, you don’t control the list.

That being said, there are some unique alternatives to the classic to-do list. You’ll find many different ideas across the web about how to create a successful list (start small! refresh daily! set priorities!), but what if we approached to-do lists from a different angle?

Here are five off-the-radar ways to put a different type of to-do into working awesome.

Take Charge With a 1-3-5 List

Your standard to-do list is a running tab of what needs to get done. Throw that out. Crumple it into a ball and shoot it into the wastebasket. Slam it home.

Try a 1-3-5 list.

The instructions go like this: Write down one big thing, three medium things and five small things that you will be able to get done tomorrow. Do this the night before so that you eliminate the early-morning rush to remember what’s on your agenda.

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If you find that your busy schedule causes new items to keep popping up, leave a couple spots open for add-ons. Make the list as flexible as you need.

The 1-3-5 list acknowledges that you can’t complete an entire to-do list in one day, but you can accomplish a series of big, medium and small tasks. What a relief to have a doable to-do. And even more so, how great to keep a list that puts you in charge.

Forcing yourself to choose a 1-3-5 list means the things you get done will be the things you chose to do — rather than what just happened to get done.

The To-Do List, Bullet Journal Style

What’s one problem with to-do lists? You don’t have a way of retracing your progress. When an item is done, you cross it off, never to be heard from again. But there is value in referring to the past and organizing a calendar of to-dos.

Some online to-do lists have features that help with storing and referencing past to-dos. Now, there is a pen-and-paper technique that does the same. The Bullet Journal method of note-taking and list-making is designed to be referential. There are page numbers and indices and, naturally, bullets.

The video from Ryder Carroll explains the details of the Bullet Journal and how to set one up.

Each month gets a calendar page to store accomplishments. Each day gets its own series of to-dos. Miscellaneous items can be grouped into their own lists, and at the end of each month, all the undone items get carried over.

Everything gets tracked on an index page, so yes, this will likely be the first to-do list you’ve ever had with page numbers.

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Note What’s Finished with a Done List

Maybe we’re looking at to-do lists from the wrong angle. Done lists are a reflection of what we’ve accomplished, which is a hugely uplifting paradigm shift compared to the enormity of what’s left to do.

Instead of writing down what you have left to do, write down what you have done. List your accomplishments. Record your moments of usefulness.

Netscape founder Marc Andreessen calls it an “Anti-Todo list.” Others go with the catchy Done List name. Whatever it’s called, the results and the purpose are the same: Feel better about yourself and motivated for tomorrow by recognizing what you have done.

The to-do list can motivate you by directing you to just put one foot in front of the other. The done list motivates you to keep walking in the first place because you’ve got all that “how-feet-work” business down.

Services like iDoneThis are built in done lists. Journaling is an analog way of keeping a done list. These kinds of lists have existed and motivated people for years, and they are a unique way of focusing on the best parts of the to-do.

A Zen Alternative to Getting Things Done

The popular Getting Things Done (GTD) time management system [Listen to our interview with the author here] works on a series of habit changes designed to supercharge your productivity. Great. Super. I’m all in. But can you make it easier?

Leo Babuta’s alternative, called Zen to Done (ZTD), takes the GTD method and tweaks it to focus on simplicity. “Focus on doing what’s important, and do it well.” Great. Super. How?

Again, like with GTD, the ZTD method involves a series of habit changes, each with the intent of creating a better system for doing. Here are a few highlights:

  1. Keep simple, context lists. For example, a work list, a home list, an errands list, a future list.
  2. Ubiquitous capture. Carry a notebook or capture tool (let’s be honest, an iPhone) to jot down tasks and ideas as they come to you.
  3. Reduce to the essential. Only keep the goals and tasks that are most important and valuable.

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Find More Time with a To-Stop-Doing List

Completely contrary to the to-do list is the to-stop-doing list. Writer Chris Guillebeau makes one of these each New Year. While the rest of us are taking note of what we want to add to our lives, Chris notes what he wants to remove. From his book, The Art of Non-Conformity:

“The best way to stop spending time on unnecessary distractions is to make a “to-stop-doing list.” This is better than a to-do list, because it helps you see what’s bringing you down. Your to-stop-doing list is exactly what it sounds like: a list of things you simply don’t want to do anymore.”

Since reading Chris’s book, I have maintained a to-stop-doing list every year since. Here is what the list looked like (along with my progress) from last year.

  • No more yard work. I cut out the fertilization, but the rest is still up to me. (Half-win)
  • Shaving. I still shave, but less frequently. (Half-win)
  • Talking on the phone (✓). Proud to say I can go almost a week without a phone conversation.
  • Junk mail (✓). Proud to say I throw most of my mail in the trash.
  • Home Depot projects. Few and far between. (Three-quarters-win)

Takeaways

Do you struggle with maintaining a to-do list? Maybe you’re like me and mean well but follow through poorly. Time to try something new. Instead of going back to the well on your to-do list that never gets done, try one of these instead:

  • Keep a running tab of what you accomplish each day.
  • Create a daily list of one big item and several small ones you can and will accomplish.
  • Capture everything, only list the essentials.
  • Put it all in a good-looking journal — with an index!
  • Find time. Make a list of stuff you want to stop doing.

Good luck and happy listing, and maybe don’t add “new to-do list” to your current to-do list just in case it doesn’t get done.

(Image courtesy of Bandita under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license.)


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Kevan Lee crafts content for the Buffer blog, and his work has been featured at Time, Huffington Post, Fast Company, and The Next Web. Get in touch on Twitter at @kevanlee.
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Discussion

  1. Sigurdur Armannsson on the 30th June

    Hereistoday is one more that has worked great for me form any years. http://font.is/the-circle-a-simple-todo-system-to-get-more-things-done/

  2. Scott on the 2nd July

    The problem with these approaches is that they focus on what you *can* get done rather than what you *have* to get done. In the work environment for many people (and certainly in my personal life as well), there are simply lots of things that must get done. I don’t have the luxury of telling my boss, “I know you want me to do 7 things today, but I can only get 3 done, so I’m just going to ignore the rest.” Sure, being a productive person involves prioritization and good time management. But many “alternative” to-do list methodologies seem to ignore or trivialize the fact that a lot of us just have too damn much stuff to do. I’d like to see something that addresses that issues, and provides hope for getting things under control.

  3. Steffen on the 5th July

    Thanks for this article. Everyone should have a Stop-Doing List besides a normal To-Do-List.

    If you just keep all your To-Do lists, by the time you will get a big Done-Archive which is very motivating.

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